Sunday, March 10, 2013

Building Bridges

The Cowherd and the Weaving Maiden – an ancient Chinese folk tale:
Adapted from the translation by Judith Huang ( )
A young Cowherd and his old water buffalo walked past a stream where the King of Heaven’s seven daughters were bathing. The water buffalo said:   “Niu Lang, you are a good and virtuous young man, and I want to see you happy. The youngest [of the seven daughters] is the most talented and beautiful. Go and take the fairy robe of brightest red, and she will be your wife.” Niu Lang followed the water buffalo’s instructions.  When the daughters saw Niu Lang and the old buffalo, they put on their robes and flew away, but the youngest daughter could not.  Niu Lang approached her and said kindly “Here is your fairy robe – I will give it to you.  But first, promise to be my wife.” The youngest daughter, Zhi Nǚ, whose name means Weaver Girl, for she wove the cloth of the sky, looked at the handsome young cowherd and agreed.
As time went on, Niu Lang and Zhi Nǚ fell deeper in love and Zhi Nǚ gave birth to a son and a daughter. However, the king of heaven realized that the colours of the sky were not as beautiful as before, and he asked his mother, Wang Mu Niang Niang, to look for his missing daughter. Wang Mu Niang Niang saw the happy family, and saw how Zhi Nǚ had taught the villagers the secret art of weaving, and she flew into a rage. She was determined to snatch Zhi Nǚ away from Niu Lang, and to force her to weave the cloth of the sky again.
The water buffalo said to the cowherd, “You have treated me well in this life. Now, I am near to death, and you must take my skin and make a pair of shoes out of them, for with my skin you will be able to fly.” Niu Lang was overcome with sorrow, but agreed to take the water buffalo’s skin. With that, the water buffalo gave up his spirit, and the whole family mourned the loss of their kind friend.  Zhi Nǚ knew that the water buffalo had foreseen something terrible, and waited in fear for Wang Mu Niang Niang to find her.
Wang Mu Niang Niang descended from the heavens and snatched Zhi Nǚ from her home into the sky. Niu Lang cut the water buffalo’s skin into a pair of shoes and, balancing two pails on a rod on his shoulders, he put one child in each pail and ran as fast as the wind, up into the clouds after her. He got closer and closer to Zhi Nǚ, until they were merely a hand’s breadth apart.  Suddenly, Wang Mu Niang Niang threw down her diadem, and it changed into a vast river of stars, separating the two lovers. If you look into the sky at night, you will see Niu Lang and Zhi Nǚ, two stars [Altair and Vega] on opposite sides of the river of stars [the Milky way], and if you look closely, you will see two smaller stars beside Niu Lang’s star [Altair]:  their children. 
Moved by the true love of Niu Lang and Zhi Nǚ, the magpies of the world decided to form a bridge across the Star River once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month, so that the couple and their children may meet again.


At the end of World War II, hundreds of volunteers from the Red Cross and other organisations worked to bridge the distance between husbands and wives who had been separated.  By compiling lists of camp internees and facilitating the exchange of messages, they helped many couples and families to reunite.  
A camp list, compiled by the Red Cross on 4th September 1945 – 17 days after the Japanese capitulation -  includes my Oma’s name:  Marianne Van Bael-Knoll.

Disease, death and an unimaginable deterioration of conditions combined with an increasingly mature consciousness to make the months spent in Kamp Makassar seem interminably long to my Mother and Aunt.  “Makassar was the camp in which we spent the longest time”, Mum suggested.  In reality however, it was far less than the time spent in Bandung:  only around six months before the end of the war in the Pacific.   But neither the Japanese surrender on 17th August 1945, nor the swift arrival by September of volunteer workers, were to bring the freedom that they had prayed for.  Their release was complicated further by a rising wave of nationalistic and anti-Dutch fervour amongst groups of Indonesian youths (the Permudas) who, armed with weapons obtained from the Japanese soldiers, terrorised those of mixed Indo- European blood who had fought so hard to remain on the outside of the camps.  A lack of any political control led to anarchy, violence and even murder during the “Bersiap” months at the end of 1945 (Bersiap = “be ready”).   Because of this period of chaos and fear, most Indo-Europeans (including my Oma’s dear friend Moesje) left their homeland once Indonesia became fully independent from the Dutch.

A social security ID card  (for those released from prison -Bevrijde geinterneerden)  places my family still in Batavia (Jakarta) on 12th December 1945, having finally emerged from Makassar prison camp sometime during the intervening three months.   

No longer a Japanese euphemism, the internment camps finally did become “protection camps”.  In a dark and twisted comedy of irony, the dreaded gedek (bamboo and barbed wire fence), for so long a symbol of their plight and focus for all thoughts of freedom, had become the only thing standing between them and certain danger. And those who played the role of protecting them?  The same Japanese soldiers who had imprisoned them for almost three years.

By 26th December 1945, Tikus (my Oma) had made her way to Bandung and was issued 280 guilders, 4 metres of fabric and a food parcel from the red cross (Rood Kruis):  

Those food parcels would have meant the difference between life and death for my mother who was so weak and ill by the end of the war that most things, including time, were a blur.  Except the hunger.   
During our many conversations over the months of my research, the only time that my Mum has broken down was when she was talking about the hunger in Makassar: 
“We were so hungry.  It was painful. I will never forget that hunger as long as I live”
In my own world, where food has always been in plentiful supply, I could never understand why Mum would reheat for herself time and again the same old leftovers and would never throw out even so much as a grain of rice.  Until now.
“Some brave women went to the Japanese and complained about the food situation.  As a punishment, the whole camp had to go without food for two days.   When the guards realised that people were getting very very sick, they must have got worried because the next thing we knew we were given a huge amount of food!  I still remember we were given pea soup – and it was the most delicious thing I had ever tasted.   But all that food created even more problems as our bodies couldn’t handle it – some people even died because of this”.   
After reading other accounts from former internees in Makassar, I have to conclude that what she remembers are two separate and unrelated events. 
Anak Bandung’s mother, Nel, was one of the women who had complained to the guards and her description of the ordeal is posted on the BBC People’s War Website:
When sixteen of us from our hut, at the beginning of July, rebelled and asked for more and better quality [rations], we had our heads shaved as a humiliation and thrown in a very small, windowless punishment hut. The following day all the food for that day was gathered up and taken to the big field. We had to dig a large pit and throw our food in and cover it with earth. The whole camp then was denied food for two days. The camp hospital also had to share in this scandalous punishment. The Japs also switched off the water supply where they could.  This has been the worst punishment ever.”
Malnourished and weak as my mother was, she would have had no sense of time.    It is likely only to have been after the Japanese capitulation, more than one month after that event in July, that food was suddenly made available in increased quantities as relief supplies started to come in.
We had to put them on strict diets”  Odyssey, a volunteer who took care of women in one of the concentration camps on Java after liberation, posts.   A normal portion of food would have killed them. We did not have anything to serve them the pitiful portions.” 
Mum’ s explanation of these events, her own conclusion,  was most likely a child’s rationalisation for something that was unexplainable, like so many senseless things that they endured.  How was a child supposed to understand that the war was over whilst they were still behind the gedek?  To comprehend that their tormentors could become their protectors, and with that the inherent notion that all things can and inevitably will change, would have required a shift in consciousness too immense for a child to make and most likely beyond the capabilities even of the adults.
Odyssey goes on to describe how some women, their every thought mired by residual fear and a strong survival instinct, even claimed that the relief workers were stealing their food.  They spat accusations at the volunteers who had come to help them build a bridge, to transition from certain death to an uncertain life.
 The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is a [one hundred year old]  international humanitarian movement with approximately 97 million voluteers, members and staff worldwide which was founded to protect human life and health, to ensure respect for all human beings, and to prevent and alleviate human suffering, without any discrimination based on  nationality, race, sexual orientation, sex, gender identity, religious beliefs, class, allegiance, or political opinions. ( Wikipedia)

During 2012, the Red Cross was involved in projects to alleviate the suffering of those displaced or in need of support as a result of disaster or war all over the world. It continued to provide psychosocial assistance to those in the Fukoshima area in Japan, as well as support for the rebuilding of hospitals and clinics; It set up shelters and organised water rescues for people trapped by flood waters in Jakarta and the UK;  and it provided first aid training and support services during the London Olympic games.

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